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The War at Home

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The other day, I took a hike with my 11-year-old son in Eaton Canyon, a desert trail at the end of Pasadena. Maybe it was a flavor of Armageddon in the 100 degree heat, or a hint of Iraq in the earthquake-shattered rubble along the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, or just having a morning headful of HuffPo war chatter, but found myself wondering how the wars around the globe affected my son. "We've been in war since I can remember," my son explained. "It just seems normal."

When I look back at my childhood, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Vietnam War. My parents watched Walter Cronkite at dinner. I recall a series of flash-bulb memories from those evenings. A reporter walking and talking and then the broadcast going blank -- because he got blown up. Two grim presidents, Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon, mumbling assurances beneath brows wrinkled with obvious, private worries. Piles of corpses after the massacre at My Lai, an image that later got turned into a poster, which I morbidly put up in my room. We went as a family to the Moratorium in Washington. 250,000 people. A thrilling rumor of riot police about to descend. Angry voices coming out of intermittently amplified bullhorns. The boredom of staring at the back of a guy's poncho until my whining brought me up onto a parent's shoulders. The pleasure of shouting "fucking" along with a crowd of adults when we chanted, "one, two, three, four, we don't want this fucking war!" I put myself to sleep at night with vague romantic fantasies of being a rebel, inspired by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs songs, or by terrorizing myself with end-of-the-world scenarios inspired by "Dr. Strangelove" and James Bond movies. You could not look away from the wars of my childhood -- not the cold one in Eastern Europe or the hot one in the Far East. They got into our diversions. They made our music louder, our libations stronger and stranger, put a vein of moral ambiguity in our movie heroes. This was, of course, not all good. The anti-establishment credo of the times cursed me with mixed feelings when I had to take my place at the table.

The terrible events of the past 5 years seem to have barely glanced off our culture. Yes, Spielberg borrowed images from 9-11 to add heat to a movie about space invaders, and Oliver Stone directed a powerful homage to the heroes of Twin Towers. But these are conventional exorcisms, ways to roll credits over an experience that will never have an ending, happy or otherwise. Mostly, our culture remains a culture of distraction.

Last year I went to a demonstration in Studio City against the Iraq war with my wife and my 13-year-old son. A young guy sang protest songs. People held candles. My son loves the Beetles and Hendrix and everything 60s. Holding a candle in a midnight vigil was a dream come true, and his enthusiasm, more than the imagery, made me feel nostalgic. At around 11, an ABC News crew came by and interviewed two movie stars who had joined the demonstration. We strained to listen but couldn't hear over the noise of the crowd. After the interviews, the news crew disappeared, the movie stars left, and the crowd began to disperse, like extras done for the day. "Is this it?" my son asked. The experience began to feel like a living history exhibit in Williamsburg, Virginia, where you get to play quoits with a girl in a hoop skirt, and you're transported to the 18th century, until you spot the tattoo on her ankle. We watched the news that night and heard what the movie stars had to say, but my son walked out of the room, no longer interested. He had been there, but apparently he hadn't.

Why has the unrest of the times found no strong expression in the culture, except perhaps in the blogosphere? Partly, I think, we are demoralized to see history repeat itself as farce. It was easy to throw darts at the grim countenance of Richard Nixon. But Dubya seems more at home in a clown dunk. Why even line 'em up? A direct hit will just stretch out that grin. The bigger part is that while we weren't looking our media outlets grew into giant, vertically integrated, corporations, as mainstream as banking and oil, and as well defended. The fun-machine broke down in the 60s and 70s, but it's been fixed, and it assimilates the times with terrifying efficiency. What goes in 9-11, comes out Tom Cruise.

For a birthday party, I took my younger son to Conquest Paintball Park in North Hollywood. He and his buddies put on face-masks and camo, broke up into squads and shot at each other for a few blissful hours. Did I feel some qualms? Of course. But mostly I enjoyed my son's pleasure in being a part of things. They started out at the Normandy field, crouch running from bubble-bunker to bubble-bunker, and worked their way to the more advanced, scarier field dubbed "Vietnam," where they played capture the flag. My son knows something about the horrors of war. He says he's going to become a Quaker when they re-institute the draft. But as he ran along the "river," expecting at any moment a crew of 11 year olds to rise out of "the tunnels" dug under the strands of bamboo, I'm sure he felt nothing more than the thrill of mock-battle, which just seems normal, unfortunately